To this day, the Ford Focus ST remains one of the most frustrating cars I’ve ever driven. On paper, it promises so much. Starting at around £22,495 it’s incredibly cheap considering how fast it is: its 2.0-litre, turbocharged ‘Ecoboost’ four-pot is good for 247bhp. Lastly, it’s the big brother of the Fiesta ST: not just the best hot hatch out there, but pound-for-pound probably the best performance car you can buy. So the Focus should be amazing. But the unfortunate reality is that it just isn’t, or at least it hasn’t been thus far.
We ran one as a long-term test car for the best part of the year, and while it was likeable in its own way, it had a cheap and very nasty cabin, rode unnecessarily harshly and torque steered like a pig. When I drove ‘ours’ back-to-back with the rather more sensible Skoda Octavia vRS, I concluded that the Czech was the one I’d buy, with its considerably less psychotic power delivery, smoother ride and well-built cabin.
But things have changed since then. The Focus has received a facelift, and a pretty major one at that. It looks cleaner at the front: the number plate is now located at the bottom of the (redesigned) angry shark mouth grille rather than slap bang in the middle, and the bumper design is neater.
The inside’s been hugely improved too, with the smattering of tiny buttons gone and the titchy screen replaced with a much larger one. Most importantly, the steering has been tweaked and the torque vectoring has been fiddled with. Dump all of these improvements into the practical estate version of the ST, and it seems as though you have all the fast car you could ever want, and at a bargain price. Or do you?
To find out, we arranged a rematch using our own Skoda Octavia vRS estate longtermer, and brought in an interloper in the form of the more expensive Leon ST Cupra 280 from fellow VAG brand Seat.
All three are wagonified hot hatchbacks, all three are fast, and all three can be bought without selling organs. Here’s how they got on:
We’ve been living with hot Octavias a total of six months this year, and I’ve become rather fond of the things. In vRS form these cars are consummate all-rounders. With 217bhp and a 0-62mph time of under seven seconds, the petrol vRS is fast enough for most, has a particularly capable chassis, and has enough space inside to carry five people and all their clobber. But when it comes to being driven hard, it never fully satisfies. It’s a lot more interesting with a manual gearbox (we ran the DSG auto version for three months), but just feels like it’s lacking a little sparkle.
There is plenty to like about the way it drives, though. The steering’s nicely weighted and quick when in sport mode (if a little numb) and the damping is very well judged. The car rolls to a reasonable degree when pressed, but it never feels untidy, and it has the best ride of the three. Well, it would if I hadn’t been a bit of an idiot and asked for 19-inch wheels to be fitted on it a few weeks ago.
The ‘XDS’ system which nibbles away at the front wheels during hard cornering does a good job of quelling understeer, rounding off a package that always feels secure and dependable. But maybe that’s the problem: it’s all a bit too safe and secure. And it’s all a bit too sensible to look at, both inside and out. So is the boisterous nature of the Ford the best antidote?
As much as I wanted to clear my mind of such thoughts, I went into this test wanting to like the Focus particularly badly. It’s the one I like the look of the most, is the best value, and has the potential to be the most exciting.
I was holding out hope on the improvements making all difference, but sadly, it’s more of the same. Sure, the car impressed when my colleague Darren drove it earlier in the year, but that was on deliciously smooth Spanish roads. Over here it’s still hampered by that unruly power delivery. We normally don’t mind cars a little rough and ready, but the torque steer in the ST is simply infuriating. Even under moderate throttle the steering wheel feels like it’s trying to wrench your arms out of their sockets. You get bored of it very quickly.
It’s made worse by the electronic steering compensation system. This detects torque imbalances in the front wheels, and reduces the steering assistance in the direction the steering is expected to be tugged. But, it just ends up giving the steering a weird, very artificial feeling when it’s doing its thing.
“I wouldn’t mind it being a little more expensive if the interior plastics were better and if they’d bothered fitting a proper diff”
This is especially annoying, as in many other ways, the Ford is a damn good car. I love the engine’s boosty mid-range, and in the corners it is undeniably stable and unflappable, so long as you’re careful with throttle application.
You can’t argue with that price either, but it is worth noting that it does also feel a lot cheaper. I wouldn’t mind it being a little more expensive if the interior plastics were better and if they’d bothered fitting a proper diff or a version of the torque-steer killing ‘RevoKnuckle’ system Ford used to great success in the last Focus RS.
The first thing that strikes you with the Seat is just how different the engine feels to the Skoda’s, despite it being the same EA888 VW Group lump. And I don’t mean it terms of poke: although the Seat has a whole 60bhp more to play with than the Skoda and is almost a second quicker to 62mph, the Czech doesn’t feel all that far behind. Instead, the difference is all in the characteristics: the Skoda is all about a meaty low and mid-range, whereas the Seat is all revvy and eager.
“It’s as though the whole car is egging you on to go faster: the more you put your foot down, the less you understeer. It goes against what your brain expects”
As a result, it’s the Seat that has the spicier engine, and it even has the edge when it comes to noise. That feeling of excitement is still present when you start attacking corners. It feels firmer (albeit not as firm as the Ford), tidier, and capable of a hell of a lot more thanks to the witchcraft-spec VAQ not-strictly-speaking-a-differential differential, which is able to send up to 100 per cent of torque to each driven wheel.
Although it’s not quite as blatant as when we had the car on track earlier this year, you do feel that VAQ system dragging you out of a bend if you’re tackling one hard enough. I like that feeling a lot. It’s as though the whole car is egging you on to go faster: the more you put your foot down, the less you understeer. It goes against what your brain expects.
It’s not hard to find fault in the Seat, though. Although it’s more aesthetically pleasing (don’t worry, the orange bits are optional) than the Skoda - what with the whole angular thing it’s got going on - it has less boot space than its VAG cousin. It’s also even more dreary inside than the Octavia, and while the steering is sharper, it’s too light and not the greatest in terms of feedback from the road. A little more muscle to the otherwise slick gear change wouldn’t go amiss, either.
If you’ll excuse me using a rather tortured analogy, you can quite successfully sum up these three cars using the story of every child’s favourite burglar, Goldilocks. Specifically, in the servings of porridge the young miscreant attempts to pilfer.
The Skoda is too cold; it’s competent and an awesome all-rounder, but needs more excitement. The Ford goes the other way and is too hot, with its ridiculous power delivery and overly-firm suspension, meaning that while good value, it’s not the have it all car I was hoping for. So that leaves us with the just right Seat Leon ST Cupra.
While the Ford’s steering feels more hefty and natural - when you’re being more careful with the throttle, that is - and the gear change meatier, the Leon ST Cupra well and truly bests the wayward Ford in the driving stakes. As with a lot of fast VAG products it could maybe do with a little more overall excitement, but it’s a bloody satisfying thing to drive when you’re in the mood. Plus, the fact that it’ll lap the Nordschleife in 7 minutes and 58 seconds is an excellent pub boast, not to mention a testament of how serious a machine it is.
I do think the Octavia deserves special mention. The fact that it doesn’t feel all that far behind the Leon in terms of speed and capability is commendable indeed, and you can’t ignore the fact that the base price is over £4000 lower, nor the fact that there’s now a ‘vRS 230’ available with that same VAQ diff (we’ll be testing that next month). However, you also can’t ignore the fact the Leon feels worth the extra, even when you put to one side that it’s better equipped as standard.
It’s a car that proves just because you need to think about the unexciting, practical side of motoring, you can still have something that’ll tear up your favourite road like the best of them. Despite a few flaws, it’s an incredible bit of kit.